Depending on how you wanted to look at it, there was a bit of good news and a bit of bad news surrounding Jake Guentzel’s red-hot start to the 2018-19 campaign. On one hand, Guentzel had used the first third of the campaign to establish himself as a steady scorer and a true top-six fixture as Sidney Crosby’s linemate, putting up totals that put him on pace to smash his previous career bests. On the other, Guentzel was hitting his stride as a restricted free agent-to-be on a cap-strapped team and his asking price, it appeared, was going up by the game.
But in a world where long-term, multi-million dollar deals often land in one of two camps — overpayment or team-friendly — it appears the Pittsburgh Penguins and Guentzel have found the happy medium and landed on exactly the right price.
On Thursday, the Penguins announced that Guentzel, who is playing out the final year of his entry-level deal, has inked a five-year, $30-million extension that will pay him an average of $6-million per season through to the 2023-24 campaign. When the deal kicks in, should the roster remain unchanged ahead of next season, Guentzel will become the fifth-highest paid Penguin, behind Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and Kris Letang. And it’s a price tag befitting a young winger who, after posting a brilliant 10 goals and 21 points in 12 post-season games last spring, is on pace to reach the 30-goal and 70-point plateaus for the first time in his career.
The primary concern with Guentzel’s pending RFA status was the potential it had to wreak havoc on the Penguins’ cap situation. Already up against the cap this season — CapFriendly pegs Pittsburgh’s spending room at little more than $100,000 as of Friday — GM Jim Rutherford was going to have little more than $11-million with which to work come the off-season and some holes to fill at season’s end. To wit, beyond re-signing Guentzel, Rutherford is likely to be tasked with finding and signing replacements for unrestricted free agents Derick Brassard, Matt Cullen and Derek Grant, each of whom are likely to move on, while also considering contracts for free agents-to-be Riley Sheahan, Zach Aston-Reese, Casey DeSmith, Juuso Riikola, Marcus Pettersson and several others.
And while $11-million to lock up Guentzel and fill out the roster might seem like a veritable king’s ransom compared to other cap-strapped teams, the worry was that a new deal for a 24-year-old on the heels of what is likely to be a career year would limit the spending room considerably. That’s particularly true at a time when prolific RFAs are signing bigger-money deals than ever before.
However, Guentzel’s $6-million cap hit seems both the perfect price tag for the winger — comparable to the recent deal signed by the Detroit Red Wings’ Dylan Larkin and much friendlier than William Nylander’s $6.9-million cap hit with the Toronto Maple Leafs — and one that will allow the Penguins to tweak and fine tune where they need to next summer. In fact, given a potential rise in the spending limit, the Penguins could conceivably have upwards of $8-million in cap space at their disposal come the off-season without having to move a single top-six skater or top-four blueliner out of town. That’s an important level of flexibility for Pittsburgh to have given their Stanley Cup window is still open and should remain open for at least a few more seasons thanks to the game-changing dynamic duo of Crosby and Malkin.
The upside, of course, goes beyond the cap implications of the contract. At $6-million annually in a seemingly steadily rising cap world, Guentzel’s contract pays him definite market value now while becoming increasingly team-friendly (there’s that word) by the time it reaches its end. But the contract signing also comes at a time when it appears we’re starting to get a handle on what kind of contributions Guentzel can make as a top-six forward.
Over his past 82 games, which includes the 12 post-season games and the final 33 games of the 2017-18 campaign, he’s scored 33 goals and 78 points. Granted, he’s playing alongside Crosby, who just so happens to be one of the most elite players in NHL history. Even a beer leaguer might experience some inflated numbers skating with Crosby. But producing like a top-flight winger alongside an all-world talent is a skill in itself, and Guentzel has shown he has the skillset to flourish on Crosby’s wing.
Even if Guentzel’s production was to stall out, too, it would be hard to call the deal a bust. Chances are that the 30-goal and 70-point marks will be the high-water mark for a player of Guentzel’s talent level. Should he regress slightly to 20 goals and 60 points, though, would anyone bat an eye or be wishing the Penguins were rid of the deal? Hardly. That’s the going rate for a player of that ilk, and if Guentzel continues to shine when the lights are brightest — in the post-season — then a slightly less productive regular season or two will be forgiven in no time.
This isn’t to mention that even if Guentzel does slow slightly as he enters into those late-prime years close to his 30th birthday, he’ll be nearly due to come off the books. When the deal kicks in next season, he’ll only just be celebrating his 25th birthday. He’ll be 29 in the final year of the contract. And should his production slow by then or Pittsburgh be interested in dumping the contract, it shouldn’t be an impossible task given he’ll be a prime-aged forward with a reasonable cap hit.
Truly, if you were to try to play a game of Spot The Downside with the Guentzel deal, it’s near impossible. Everything he has shown through his three-year tenure in Pittsburgh has indicated that he’s a player growing into his role and hitting his stride as he enters his prime. The money is right, the term is even better and if he plays as he has through his entry-level contract, it’s all upside for the Penguins.